My family loves word games. Me? Not quite as much. The problem I have is that my family members are too good at them and I always get destroyed.
That’s not a problem in Illiterati because this is a cooperative word building game, so the fact that my wife has a massive vocabulary just makes the game easier for our team. Read on to find out how this works and if this word game managed to win me over.
Disclosure: Thank you to Gap Closer Games for providing us with a review copy of the deluxe edition of Illiterati. No other compensation was provided. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
|Prefer video? Here is a link to the segment from our podcast episode where we reviewed this game. I use the show notes to compose these written reviews. The content and talking points are the same, but if you prefer to watch or listen instead of reading, you can head over here: VIDEO Illiterati game review on YouTube
What is the word game Illiterati about?
Illiterati was designed by the team of Gary Alaka, Rob Chew, and Jon Kang. It features some rather striking artwork from Audrey Jung. This world game was originally funded on Kickstarter back in March of 2022 and now that copies have been shipped to all backers it is also available in retail.
There is both a standard and a deluxe edition of this game available and it’s the deluxe version that I’m reviewing here. Illiterati Deluxe includes some aesthetic upgrades which I will detail later but no additional rules or in game content. So you don’t miss out on anything gameplay wise with the standard edition.
Illiterati is a simultaneous play, timed game, that plays one to five players with most games taking well under an hour. The more players you add the longer the game gets.
It’s listed as an age 7+ game and honestly, actual age limitations for this game are going to be based on how big a vocabulary a child has and how good their spelling skills are.
In Illiterati the players are members of the League of Librarians who have banded together to save the world’s books from the evil Illiterati, a group of elites who wish to keep reading to their exclusive group while making the rest of the population illiterate.
You battle the Illiterati by collecting letters and grouping them into words, then using those words to bind books. The goal is for each player to bind a set number of books and then as a team complete one final volume. The catch is that you are on a time limit and the Illiterati are after you. After each round of play, any letters not used are burned and one member of the Illiterati catches up to your team causing the group to discard letters or even whole worlds.
Can the League of Librarians manage to bind a final volume before too many books are burned?
For a look at the great looking components and special box you get with the deluxe edition of Illiterati check out my Illiterati Unboxing Video on YouTube.
There you will see the deluxe upgrades, including a unique, sleeve style box, silk screen printed wooden letter tiles, two embroidered bags, a jewel-capped hourglass, a dual layer burn tracker, five bookmarks, and some promo cards for one of Gap Closer Games’ other games, Rival Restaurants.
You, of course, will also get to see the non-upgraded components, which include three sets of oversized cards (red books, blue books and cards for the villainous Illiterati), a really solid box insert that does a great job of keeping these cards in place and one of the better rulebooks I’ve ever read.
My main issue here, which you can see in the unboxing video, is that that deluxe jewel-capped hourglass doesn’t work very well. The jewelled top and bottom make for a small surface area and because of this, the hourglass is prone to getting knocked over. Worse than that though is the fact that this particular hourglass tends to get stuck.
I’m also slightly concerned about the pull ribbon used to open the box. So far it’s holding up fine but I always feel like it’s taking a lot of force to get that box open.
Illiterati Overview Of Play
You start a game of Illiterati with all of the letter tiles in one bag and all three decks of cards well shuffled. Each player draws five letters from the bag and draws a red book card and places it in front of them so that all of the players can see it. These are the first books everyone is going to try to bind.
Three tiles are added to the center of the table forming the initial Library and you are ready to start the first round.
Each round of Illiterati begins with the players drawing seven tiles. Once everyone has their new tiles the three-minute timer is started and players start trying to form words out of their letters. The words being formed can be pretty much anything, however, they must be at least three letters long and can’t be proper nouns unless they fit the theme of the book the player forming the word is trying to bind (based on the card in front of them). Each player can only have a maximum of eight words.
While building words players are free to talk to each other, discuss the words they are working on and even trade letters and/or full words. All players can also freely exchange letters with the library at the centre of the table but need to be aware it can only hold three letters by the end of the round.
The main goal, especially in the first round, is to make sure all of the players use up all of their letters. That’s how you stay alive in this game and prevent letters from getting burned. Only once everyone has formed words, any words, should anyone start worrying about binding books.
Binding books is the goal of the game, each book card lists the requirements for that book to be bound. For the red book cards, players will be looking for at least eight letters worth of words (which can be multiple words not just one big long word) all fitting a theme.
These themes include animals, things found under the sea, social media companies, etc. In addition, you will require at least three of the letters in these words to come in the same theme.
There are four suits or themes in Illiterati which represent different types of story elements (drama, conflict, tragedy, and adventure). All of the vowels in the game have one of these suits, and many of the consonants do as well. There are also some black tiled letters which count as all four of these suits. These include two blank wildcards (that can be used as any letter) and a number of harder to use letters like X, Q and Z.
Once the timer runs out the round ends. The next step is to make sure everyone has used up all of their letters. If not, any extra letters get put into the library at the centre of the table. You then check to see if the library is overfilled. Remember, the library can only hold three letters. If the library is overfilled it catches the notice of the Illiterati who show up and burn one of the letters in the library at random, removing it from the game. You are then forced to discard any other extra letters so that the library is back down to only three tiles.
If at any point you are forced to burn a fourth letter, the game is over. The Illiterati have won.
If the library isn’t overfilled and no letters got burnt this round, it’s now time to bind books. To bind a book a player discards a number of words matching the book’s requirements and then discards the fulfilled book card.
When a red book card is bound the next book card you get comes from the blue pile. These generally have requirements based on grammatical forms and concepts and not themes. They include things like rhyming words, synonyms, antonyms, etc.
Once all players have bound a blue book, the group picks one more book type to bind, either blue or red. A book card of the proper colour is revealed and placed in the centre of the table. This card represents the final chapter, the final book that needs to be bound by every player all at once, in the same round, to win the game.
At the end of each round, assuming you haven’t won the game, a member of the Illiterati gets involved. This is represented by drawing the top card from the Illiterati deck and carrying out what it says on the card. These are all nasty ways to make you discard letters from your already formed words, ruining them for the next round.
They include things like everyone discarding their smallest word unless one player discards the longest word in play, drawing a tile from the bag and everyone discarding every instance of that letter in play, checking how many letters of a specific theme you have and then discarding letters based on that count, etc.
None of what the Illiterati force you to do is good and to make things even nastier, there are five different Illiterati in the deck. Each of these has its own form of punishment and if you ever draw an Illiterati card that matches one that’s already in play there’s a chain effect where the new card takes effect and then each existing instance of that same Illiterati also goes off.
Assuming you haven’t burned your fourth letter and lost, and also haven’t each bound The Final Chapter and won, play moves to the next round. Everyone gets seven new letters, the timer is restarted and everyone starts forming words again.
The big thing to watch for here is to focus on making sure that everyone has used all of their letters by the end of each round and that no one has accidentally made more than eight words. While bookbinding is the goal of the game, it can’t be at the cost of burning letters. When you burn letters, not only do you get closer to losing the game you also can’t bind any books that round.
In addition to these standard rules, Illiterati also comes with rules for solo play and ways to increase the difficulty level. These involve having to bind more than two books before reaching the final chapter, a smaller library size, and allowing fewer burned books before a loss. There’s also an optional win condition where you can’t bind the final chapter if there are any letters left in the library. With that rule in play, you can’t even have a single unused letter left at the end of the final round.
Who should pick up Illiterati?
I agreed to check out Illiterati from Gap Closer Games because my wife, Deanna, loves word games, my oldest daughter, Gwen, has also shown a lot of love for them, and my mother-in-law adores them.
Me personally? I’m not a huge fan due to the fact that the girls always twomp me, so the idea of a cooperative word game rather appealed to me and I was not disappointed in the least with what Illiterati provided.
Illiterati is not just a good word game, it’s also a good cooperative game, and it has a very appealing theme that I think is going to appeal to a lot of non-hobby gamers. Who doesn’t want to become a badass librarian trying to stop fascists intent on world illiteracy by binding books out of scraps?
At its heart, Illiterati is a pretty simple game. It feels to me like cooperative Banagrams, because you get a pile of letter tiles in front of you and then use those to try to form words as quickly as you can. The twist of course is that other people can help you and you can help other people out when forming those words.
Taking that to the next level, I don’t think you could actually win Illiterati without the players working together. It’s that ability to trade words and letters that makes it possible to use up all of your letters each round as well as form the words you need to bind the book cards you are dealt.
While this can lead to some quarterbacking, I have always found it to be under control and never overbearing or forceful. In this game the quarterbacking is more about trying to help out someone who’s short on time or struggling to form words and not about one player trying to lead the others because they know the game better or think they are better at it.
I was very impressed by the component quality in Illiterati and I’m glad they sent us the deluxe edition to check out. I love the thick wooden tiles and adore the fact that the game came with two bags instead of one. Until you try it out, you don’t realize just how much better any game where you pull tiles from a bag can be by having a separate discard bag you just swap to when the first one is empty.
Another thing that impressed me here is the price point, especially given the quality of the components. Illiterati standard edition is only $35 US ($47 Canadian) and Illiterati Deluxe is only $49 ($66 Canadian).
Under $50US is a great price for what you get in the deluxe edition and under $35 is a great price for any modern board game, especially one with chipboard tiles, a box insert, and big Dixit–sized cards.
If you are a word game fan I think picking up Illiterati is a no brainer. This is a great, modern word making game with a cooperative twist. The entire system for staying alive by using all your letters combined with the fact that you are trying to form words that fit specific categories is refreshing and feels new. This isn’t just another Scrabble clone. The cooperative nature of Illiterati also means this is a great word game for players of different experience levels and a great family game because of that.
If you are looking for a cooperative game that’s not about exploring dungeons, surviving an alien attack, curing diseases or sinking islands, you should give Illiterati a look. This has a very cool and unique theme for a cooperative game, plus aren’t many cooperative word games out there. The basic mechanics also make this one good for groups of non-gamers. Cooperative Scrabble where you are trying to defeat the evil Illiterati is a pretty easy sell to any word game fan.
What really impressed me the most about Illiterati is the fact that this game just might appeal to gamers like me who aren’t generally big word game fans. I don’t mind your average word game but they aren’t usually my style of choice.
Illiterati sucked me in with its cool theme and cooperative play. In this game the fact that my wife is a huge book nerd didn’t make the game one sided, it just made the game easier for our entire team.
There are two big things to be aware of when thinking of picking up Illiterati. A firm grasp of spelling is required to play this game and that’s going to make it a no go for some players, specifically players with learning disabilities like my younger daughter. Also, this is a real time game, and despite it being cooperative, you are on a timer which can be an anxiety issue for some players.
That’s it for my review of Illiterati a cooperative word game with a fantastic theme.
Do you enjoy word games? What’s your favourite? Is it a classic like Scrabble, or something more modern? Let us know about it in the comments below or hit me up on social media where I can be found as @tabletopbellhop pretty much everywhere!